After reading the coverage earlier of the Vogue editor who stood behind the tried and true (and trite) "We're just trying to sell a fantasy!" defense as to why their "aspirational" covers use only very thin, white women, I started to really flesh out why the "fantasy" defense bothers me so very, very much. Callie did a great job of doing a logical takedown of why this line of thinking is so wrong on a cultural level in perpetrating our beauty standards, but there's always been something about that very word "fantasy" that offended me on a more personal level.
I love fantasy - in particular, I love fantasy novels. To me, when you say the word "fantasy", it brings up images of different worlds, of magic, of swords and heros and magical creatures. It brings up stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things, of good and of evil, of intriguing characters with names that have far too many consecutive consonants in them. It's not the only definition of fantasy, but it's very much an excellent example of what it's all about - escapism and imagining yourself in a time and place that is different than the one you're in. And most fantasy novels accomplish this in a very similar way.
When the novel starts, the main character is usually just your average person; heck, most times, they're a little quirky or worse off than average in some ways. They're pretty goddamn relatable, because they're just like us. Hobbits are just little short people no one takes seriously; Harry Potter is just a scrawny little unlovable kid living under the stairs. The Pevensies were squabbling and bored kids shunted to the country by their parents. I thought it was a bold (and brilliant) move when Rick Riordan made Percy Jackson a kid that could barely read, because in fantasy worlds, we're far more used to being told the main character is bookish in an obvious attempt to pander to the readership demographic.
But while fantasy starts with our seemingly normal and relatable hero, the second half of the fantasy genre is where the magic happens; the changes they go through as they deal with the fantastic. We watch this person like ourselves developing talents, becoming a better person, and achieving greatness. And the vast majority of the time (radioactive spiders aside), you do this transformation using traits you already have. People in fantasy novels don't get magical powers the second they walk through a door into a strange world; they don't immediately become beautiful, nor do they gain super strength. In many instances, they may discover powers that they didn't realize they had, but they had those abilities inside them all along. Harry Potter was always a wizard; he just didn't know it.
With both of these pieces of the puzzle, we're left with the reason why fantasy is so appealing; believing it could happen to someone like us and believing that we, like those characters it is happening to, have untapped greatness and would react in a similar way and that we are as amazing.
I honestly believe that fashion is capable of the same thing for many people; it's why we love makeover shows. I could write an entirely separate post about how
"What Not to Wear" is essentially follows a standard fantasy plotline in and of itself (average person steps into fantastical world with two all knowing mystical guides, has to undergo a series of tasks that are physically and emotionally difficult, learns more about themselves and the world before becoming stronger and braver and improved and then receives adulation). You wouldn't believe it by looking at what I'm wearing now but I do genuinely believe that there is something magical about fashion; putting on makeup and a dress and feeling like you've always had this beautiful person inside of you that is just now showing. And fashion often plays an important role in fantasies and transformation itself; what is Cinderella without her gown and slippers? The overlap of people who love both fantasy and fashion/clothing is much bigger than anyone who hasn't been to a ComicCon would believe.
But the fashion world - the world of Vogue and their compatriots - is not about fantasy. And it upsets me when they say they are, because fantasy is something beautiful and what they are doing is the opposite of fantasy as I know it. Fantasy is about showing the extraordinary in the ordinary; it is about empowering the person experiencing it to believe that yes, that could be me.
If these fashion covers were portraying fantasy, they would need to show me how someone like me could be magical and beautiful like that, if only I were put into the right world or place. They need to show me how the clothes and make-up are only there to bring out and enhance something I already had inside of me. Like the way I secretly believe that if I could just find the door to Narnia, I could end up becoming an archery expert and queen, I want to believe that all it would take is for me to be dropped down into the Vogue closet with a makeup artist (or ten) and I could be that beautiful too.
And I don't. Heck, what I see on the cover of Vogue makes Narnia seem like the more realistic of the two. I see someone that is multiple standard deviations above what an average person weighs, or looks like. I see someone who doesn't have my skin color, or body shape. I see someone that I could never be. There is no... fantasy... there. I can't become that person unless I were to fundamentally change, and the heart of fantasy is really about becoming the best version of yourself possible, not about becoming someone else. Fantasy is not something you can buy.
So please, stop saying that you're trying to sell me "fantasy". I know fantasy, and this is not it. And by claiming that your weird, un-empowering, self esteem destroying marketing ploys are "fantasy", you are besmirching the very name of something diametrically opposite and really, really precious.
I would challenge you to a duel, but please give me a few days to re-read Song of the Lioness and brush up on my imaginary sword fighting skills.